WHAT DOES SOCIALISM MEAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY?
By Nancy Fraser
[This article published in Dec 2020 is translated from the German on the Internet, Was heißt Sozialismus im 21. Jahrhundert? « Zeitschrift LuXemburg (zeitschrift-luxemburg.de).]
Everyone is talking about "socialism" again. For decades, the word was frowned upon - it stood for a terrible failure, was a relic of times long past. That's all over now! Today, politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wear the label "socialist" with pride and meet with approval. Organizations like the "Democratic Socialists of America" can hardly save themselves from new members. But what exactly do they mean by "socialism"? Even if we are happy about the new enthusiasm, it does not automatically translate into a serious discussion of content. So, what exactly does "socialism" stand for in today's world, and what should it stand for?
To these questions I offer here some reflections that are not yet ready answers. Just as I advocate a broad analysis of capitalism, I propose a comprehensive understanding of socialism that breaks with the common economism of earlier approaches. Since I do not consider capitalist economics in isolation, but in the context of its contradictory and destructive relationship to its "non-economic" preconditions, it is clear to me that socialism must do more than just change the sphere of production. It must also bring about a fundamental change in relation to the spheres and conditions that make capitalist production possible in the first place. I am speaking here of the sphere of reproduction, of state power, of non-human nature, and of forms of wealth that lie outside the formal grasp of capital and yet within its reach. Or, to put it another way, I believe that a contemporary socialism must not only abolish the capitalist exploitation of wage labor. It must equally overcome the exploitation of unpaid care labor as well as public goods, and end the appropriation of wealth based on the dispossession of racialized people and natural resources.
The result, as noted earlier, will be a significantly expanded conception of socialism. But expanding does not mean merely adding to it. The task is not to add some new aspects and dimensions to handed-down concepts, but to leave them essentially untouched. Rather, the task is to revise our views of both capitalism and socialism by incorporating into them structural analyses of aspects usually considered secondary: in particular, gender/sexuality, race/ethnicity/nationality/empire, ecology, and democracy. When we do this, many of the classic topoi of socialist thought suddenly appear in a different light: domination and emancipation, class and crisis, property, markets and planned economies, socially necessary labor, free time, and social surplus value.
Of course, I will not succeed in this lecture in treating all these questions exhaustively. But I will comment, however tentatively, on three of these topoi: institutional limits, social surplus value, and markets. For each of these, I will show that the problem takes a different shape the moment we no longer consider capitalism merely as an economic form, and socialism no longer merely as an alternative economic system. From this approach will emerge a conception of socialism that is clearly different, on the one hand, from Soviet-style communism and, on the other, from social democratic ideas.
However, I will start with capitalism. For me, it is necessarily the starting point of any discussion of socialism. Socialism is, after all, more than "pure ought" or than a utopian dream. If we are discussing socialism right now, it is because it holds real and historically conditioned possibilities, potentials for human freedom, well-being and happiness that capitalism has brought within reach but cannot realize. The turn to socialism is accordingly a reaction to inadequacies and injustices of the capitalist system: to the problems it produces day after day but cannot solve, and to the forms of structural domination built into the system that it cannot overcome. More generally, socialism claims to be able to remedy the ills of capitalism. So it is with these that we must begin. Only when we have identified the essential dynamics and institutional structures of capitalism will we know what exactly needs to change. And only on this basis will we be able to sketch the positive outlines of a socialist alternative. So: what exactly is capitalism? And what is wrong with it?
WHAT IS CAPITALISM? A BROADER VIEW
Capitalism is often conceived as an economic system characterized by the following features: Private property and exchange through markets, wage labor and commodity production, a credit and finance system, profits, interest, and basic rents. All this finds its expression in money and is interwoven in such a way that economic growth inevitably becomes the system imperative. Capitalism, from this perspective, is identical with the totality of all the monetized activities, relations, and objects that serve to embody or produce economic value. Let us call this the narrow or restricted view of capitalism. It corresponds to the understanding of most entrepreneurs and mainstream economists, but also to the everyday understanding of most of society. So widespread is this limited view of capitalism that it even shapes the thinking of some of its critics.
What I will call "traditional Marxism" in the following is an example of this. Its proponents see capitalism as a system of class exploitation, centered on the relationship between capitalists and wage workers at the point of production. Crucial, according to this view, is the relationship between those who have the means of production as their private property and those who own nothing but their labor power and therefore must sell this "peculiar commodity" to capitalists in order to survive. This relationship is the result of a market transaction in which labor power is exchanged for wages. It is not an exchange of equivalents. On the contrary, the capital side pays only for the socially necessary labor time (that is, for the hours of labor required to produce a quantity of value that covers the cost of living of the workers*) and appropriates the rest of the labor time of the workers* as "surplus value." It is thus a relationship of "exploitation." According to traditional Marxism, exploitation is the crux of capitalism. It is the secret behind surplus value, the driving force behind productivity gains and technological innovation. But it is also the source of poverty and class inequality, the engine of tremendous irrationality, of the by no means random periods of mass unemployment and periodic economic crises.
Without doubt, the traditional Marxist conception of capitalism is preferable to mainstream apologetics. And yet such an understanding is narrowed. It focuses solely on the "hidden site" of production and fails to look at its underlying conditions. These are found in other "non-economic" and even more hidden sites. With traditional Marxism, one might say, the cover story of capitalist society is captured, but the background of the story interests it little or not at all. Therefore, its analysis is not necessarily wrong, but incomplete. To complete the picture and arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of capitalism, we need to think not only beyond mainstream conceptions but also beyond traditional Marxist approaches. The point is to uncover the underlying relations and conditions of capitalist production outside the sphere of the economic and to include them in the analysis. Among the relevant preconditions without which capitalist economic activity would not be possible, I include the following four:
The first precondition is a considerable reservoir of unpaid labor devoted to "social reproduction." This includes domestic work, the birth and upbringing of children, and the care and maintenance of adults (wage-earners, the elderly, the sick, and the unemployed), in other words, all the work involved in bringing about and sustaining human life. Without this "people-making" there would be no "profit-making", without this reproductive work there would be no "workers", no "labor power", no socially necessary or surplus labor, no exploitation, no surplus value, no capital accumulation, no profit. But capital does not assign any value to these activities, does not care about the regeneration of the resources needed for them and, as far as it is possible, avoids paying for them.
The second "non-economic" condition of capitalism is the expropriation of the vast wealth of subjugated peoples, especially racialized populations. This wealth includes various forms of dependent, unfree, unpaid or underpaid labor, but also expropriated land, plundered mineral and energy resources, human bodies and bodily organs, and children and reproductive capacities. All of this flows into capitalist production, but capital has to pay little or nothing for it. Marx already considered this process of expropriation as essential for the multiplication of capital at the beginning of the history of capitalism. But contrary to Marx's assumption, this did not cease with the increasing "maturation" of the system. On the contrary, in addition to and interwoven with the exploitation of wage labor, the accumulation of capital today still depends on the sources of low-cost inputs not drying up. Without the expropriation of particularly subjugated people and populations, the exploitation of "free workers" would not be profitable. But capital denies its dependence on this kind of wealth and refuses to pay for its use and ensure its regeneration.
The third "non-economic" condition of capitalist economy is the manifold "free gifts" and/or barely accounted contributions of non-human nature. These provide the indispensable material substrate of capitalist production: namely, the raw materials transformed by human labor, the energy that powers machines, and the food that energizes our bodies and keeps them alive: i.e., arable land, the air we need to breathe, drinking water, and the CO2 storage capacities of the earth's atmosphere. Without these natural or ecological resources and conditions, there would be no economic production or social reproduction, no assets that can be expropriated, no exploitable free labor, no capital and no capitalists. Yet capital treats nature as if it were nothing more than a never-ending source of free gifts or cheap resources that it can access at any time, but for whose maintenance it is not responsible.
Finally, a fourth "non-economic" condition of capitalist economic activity is all the public goods and infrastructures provided by states and other public institutions. These include legal systems that protect private property and guarantee contractual relations and a free market; repressive bodies that maintain order, quell insurrections, suppress dissent, and allow expropriation both inside and outside the state's territory; a monetary system that stores value and allows transactions across temporal and spatial distances; transportation and communication infrastructures; and a variety of mechanisms for dealing with systemic crises. Without these public goods and services, there would be no functioning social orders, no trust, no exchange, and thus no continued accumulation of capital. Yet capital often adopts a rejectionist attitude toward state interference and tends to avoid paying taxes that are essential for financing public goods and services.
Each of the four areas mentioned here represents an indispensable condition for capitalist economies. Each of them encompasses multiple social relations and activities, as well as forms of social wealth, which together constitute the sine qua non for capital accumulation. The official institutions of capitalism - wage labor, the sphere of production, the free market, and an elaborate system of credit and finance - all require massive support from families, communities, nature, territorial states, political as well as civil society organizations. Last but not least, they rely on multiple forms of unpaid and underpaid labor, including forced labor, on a massive scale. In this respect, all these aspects are integral to capitalist society and constitutive elements of it.
In other words, capitalism is more than an economic system. It is a complex institutionalized social order that assigns a specific terrain to economic activities and relations and demarcates this terrain from other "non-economicized" areas. Although the former depends on the latter, this connection is consistently denied. Part of capitalist society is a particular form of "economy" that is distinct from "polity" or political order (but dependent on it); a sphere of "economic production" distinct from (but dependent on) that of "social reproduction"; a set of relations of exploitation distinct from (but dependent on) processes of dispossession taking place in the background; and a socially and historically specific sphere of human action distinct from (but dependent on) the supposedly ahistorical material substrate of non-human nature.
At this point, we leave behind the narrow concept of capitalism as an economic form. If capitalism is instead conceived as an institutionalized social order, we arrive at an expanded view, which in turn has significant implications for the project of rethinking socialism. First, such a change in perspective changes, indeed expands, our understanding of what is wrong with capitalism. After that, it will be easier for us to understand what needs to be done to transform and overcome it.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH CAPITALISM? A BROADER VIEW
According to traditional Marxist approaches, capitalism is characterized by three major flaws or defects: Injustice, irrationality, and unfreedom. Let us consider these points in turn.
In the narrow perception of capitalism, its greatest injustice is the exploitation of the class of free and propertyless workers by capital. They work long hours without pay and produce enormous wealth in which they have no share. It is the capitalist class that profits from their labor, appropriates their surplus labor and the surplus value they produce, and reinvests the latter for its own purposes, that is, to accumulate even more capital. The result is a relentless, exponential growth of capital as a hostile power that subjects to its domination the very workers who produce capital. The exploitation of wage labor in production is, according to the traditional Marxist view, the central injustice in capitalism. The locus of the crime is the capitalist economy, specifically the sphere of production.
Capitalism's irrationality lies in its inherent tendency to produce economic crises. An economic system based on the limitless accumulation of surplus value, appropriated privately in the form of profit, is inherently unstable. The pursuit of profit maximization through increased productivity with the help of technical progress repeatedly results in the fall of the rate of profit and regularly leads to crises of overproduction and overaccumulation. Attempts to get a grip on these problems, such as financialization, only postpone the "hour of reckoning" and make the consequences all the more serious the longer the catastrophe is delayed. In general, it can be observed that the development of capitalism is characterized by periodic economic crises: boom-and-bust cycles, stock market crashes, financial market panics, chains of insolvencies, mass destruction of value, and periods of mass unemployment.
Capitalism - and this is the third point of criticism of common analyses of capitalism to be listed here - is also profoundly undemocratic by its very nature. Admittedly, it often promises democratic procedures at the level of politics. But this promise of democracy is systematically undermined by social inequalities and class domination. For example, the workplace under capitalism is generally not a place where democratic self-governance is exercised. On the contrary, here capital rules and workers obey.
From the point of view of traditional critics of capitalism, it is therefore no coincidence that capitalism cements these three evils: First, capitalism thrives on the systematic exploitation and oppression of wage workers. Second, recurring economic crises are structurally inherent in it. And third, it is extremely undemocratic in its foundations. In each case, the dynamics inherent in the capitalist economy are blamed for the problem at hand. They are seen as part of the DNA of the capitalist system and attributed solely to the economic form of organization.
Again, one could say: the analysis is not wrong, rather incomplete. While this correctly identifies the basic economic evils of capitalism, it leaves out injustices, crisis tendencies, and forms of unfreedom that do not spring directly from the economic sphere but are nonetheless constitutive of capitalist societies. We gain a clear view of them if we broaden our concept of capitalism.
An expanded concept of capitalism points to a whole series of additional systemic injustices. These are not necessarily caused by the economic structures themselves, but rather by the tension between the capitalist economy and its non-economic preconditions. One example is the separation of the economic sphere of production, where workers are usually paid, from the sphere of social reproduction, where work is usually not paid but rather sentimentalized and rewarded with "love." This classical gendered "division of labor" is the basis of a fundamental gender asymmetry at the heart of capitalist societies. It grounds the social subordination of women, binary gender orders, and the heteronormativity that continues to prevail.
Similarly, in capitalist societies there is a structural division between the "free workers" who can exchange their labor power for a wage that covers the costs of their reproduction, and all the dependent "others," that is, persons whose labor and assets capital can simply appropriate. Because they are unable to assert a right to labor protection, adequate pay, etc., this group provides capital with a stream of free or cheap resources and drives up their profits. This status hierarchy, the distinction between those who are "merely" exploitable and those who are outright dispossessed, is fundamental to capitalist society. The division roughly but unmistakably coincides with the global color line (global hierarchization of ethnicity, national origin, and skin color) and underpins a whole range of structural injustices, from racial oppression to new and old imperialism and the dispossession of indigenous peoples to genocides.
Capitalist societies also make a fairly clear distinction between human beings and nonhuman nature, which they no longer ascribe to the same ontological status. Non-human nature is reduced to its function as a storehouse of raw materials and is subjected to brute extractivism as well as extraordinary instrumentalization. This is not only an absolute disregard for nature (and animal beings), but a grave injustice to younger and future generations of humans to whom we are leaving an increasingly uninhabitable planet.
Finally, capitalism insists on a structural distinction between the "economic" and the "political." On the one hand, we have the power of private capital to organize production, using "merely" the hunger whip. On the other, we have the power of the state, which claims for itself the monopoly of force and the enforcement of law. With this separation, however, the scope of the political is shortened, and as I will show, a number of existential questions thus disappear from the public agenda. I will return to this point later. Because certain responsibilities and powers are transferred to capital, capitalist societies today are but a poor and degraded facsimile of democracy. That the majority of the population, addressed elsewhere as responsible citizens, is simply subjected to the arbitrary rule of capital is another unacceptable defect of capitalism.
A broader view of capitalist society thus directs our attention to a whole catalog of far too little considered problems of injustice, which, just like class exploitation, are not accidental but structural in nature. A socialist alternative to capitalist society must tackle and solve these as well. Thus, it is far from enough to change the organizational form of the economy; it also needs a new relationship of the sphere of production to the sphere of social reproduction, and thus to gender and gender orders. Moreover, it means putting an end to the deadweight mentality of capital, which takes for granted "free gifts" of nature and the dispossession of indigenous and other racialized populations. Finally, the scope of democratic self-government must be significantly expanded from its current miserable state. To summarize at this point: If socialism is to remedy all the wrongs of capitalism, it is not enough to change the capitalist economic order. A change in the entire capitalist social order is called for.
There are other conclusions that can be drawn from an expanded concept of capitalism. For example, it also influences what we mean by a crisis of capitalism. For instance, some self-destructive tendencies immanent in the system come into view, which point beyond the realm of economics. First, we can identify a structural tendency that repeatedly endangers social reproduction. As capital strives to avoid paying for care work, those who are primarily responsible for this area in our societies increasingly come under massive pressure, that is, families, neighborhoods, communities, and especially women. The current financialized form of capitalist society is precisely leading to the exacerbation of such a crisis, as it pushes, on the one hand, for the dismantling of public social benefits and services and, on the other hand, demands that private households and women work more and more hours.
Moreover, with an expanded understanding of capitalism, the inherent tendency of the system to exacerbate the ecological crisis can no longer be overlooked. Capital does everything in its power to avoid having to pay for the natural resources it uses in an appropriate way. Capitalism is driving soil depletion and ocean pollution on an unprecedented scale, permanently overloading the earth's carbon sinks and CO2 storage capacities. With its reckless access and recourse to natural resources and its refusal to provide for their regeneration or replacement, it destabilizes the metabolic interaction between the human and non-human components of nature. I need not elaborate here on the urgency of the current ecological crisis.
Capitalism's tendency to promote ecological crises and those of social reproduction is inseparable from its fundamental dependence on the expropriation of the wealth of racialized groups. It steals their land, robs minerals, and profits from various forms of forced labor. The places where they live increasingly serve as dumping grounds for toxic waste. Increasingly organized in the form of global supply chains, they perform underpaid care work in capitalist centers. The result is an intertwining of economic, ecological, and social crises with imperialism and racial-ethnic antagonisms. Neoliberalism has set new standards in this relationship as well.
Finally, the broader view of capitalism reveals its intrinsic vulnerability to political crises. In this case, too, capital seeks to profit from public goods without having to pay for them. By doing everything it can to avoid taxes and weaken the state's regulatory capacities, capital undermines the public sector on which its existence depends. In the wake of the financialization of capitalism, this process has reached a whole new level. Internationally active mega-corporations are often superior in many ways to territorially bound state powers and public institutions. We see global finance capital disciplining states, overriding the results of political elections (see the example of Greece), and preventing governments from addressing the legitimate interests of their people. This is plunging politics into a huge crisis of legitimacy and hegemony, in the wake of which people around the world are turning away en masse from the established party system and everyday understanding.
So, we can conclude at this point: An expanded conception of capitalism sharpens the view of its multiple crisis tendencies, which cannot be limited to "the economic." Following Polanyi (and James O'Connor), I understand them instead as "sphere-spanning" contradictions that arise and occur at the points that connect or separate the capitalist economic form from the non-economic spheres on which it is based. Or, to put it another way, capitalism tends to erode, destroy or weaken (in any case destabilize) its own presuppositions. It saws at the branch on which it sits. This, too, should not be forgotten when we talk about what is wrong with capitalist society and what socialism must overcome.
Last but not least, let's mention the enormous deficits of democracy under capitalism. The problem is not "only" that socioeconomic inequality and class power thwart the possibility of equality of all voices in the realm of politics. Nor is it "solely" the problem that bosses continue to call the shots on the factory floor. At least as important, if not more so, is that the questions with the most far-reaching consequences are not even the subject of democratic discussion and decision-making. How do we want to organize the production of goods and use values, how do we manage to satisfy the various human needs? What form of energy supply and what kinds of social relations are required for this? How do we want to link the sphere of production with the reproduction of human beings and the reproduction of non-human nature? And perhaps most important of all, how do we deploy the social surplus value that we collectively produce? In capitalist societies, we have virtually no say in these matters. Investors intent on maximum accumulation usually decide behind our backs.
A broader view of capitalist society also broadens our view of the flaws in the system. If socialism is serious about overcoming these evils, it faces a daunting task. As socialists, we must not only invent a new social order that succeeds in ending class domination. We must also overcome the asymmetries associated with gender and gender hierarchies, racist/ethnic/imperial oppression, and various forms of political domination. Another challenge is to abolish the institutions that are subject to various crisis tendencies - that is, not only the crises of economics and finance, but also the ecological crises, the crises of social reproduction, and those of politics. And undoubtedly, a socialism for the 21st century must provide for an expansion of the scope of democracy. This is not just a matter of democratizing decision-making processes within the given political framework. What is needed is a democratization of the processes by which decisions are made about what belongs to the realm of the political in the first place and what does not.
WHAT IS SOCIALISM? A BROADER VIEW
The project of reinventing a socialism for the 21st century is undoubtedly no child's play, but a challenge not to be underestimated. In any case, it is too big to be tackled by any one person or group, even if they are particularly theoretically savvy. This project will succeed, if at all, only through the joint efforts of political activists and theorists. For this, we need to bring together our insights from social struggles with programmatic thinking and political organizing. Nevertheless, in the following I would like to outline three considerations that are tangential to the issues of institutional boundaries, social surplus, and the role of markets.
To ask how supposedly given "spheres" (such as the sphere of economics and the sphere of politics) are to be delineated from each other, I consider at least as relevant as thinking about their internal modes of organization. Rather than focusing exclusively or unilaterally on the organization of "the economy," socialists* need to reflect on the relationship of "the economy" to its background conditions: to the sphere of social reproduction, to natural, non-capitalized forms of wealth, and to public power. In order to overcome all institutionalized forms of capitalist irrationality, unfreedom, and capitalist injustice, we as socialists must figure out how to reconfigure the relationship between production and reproduction, society and nature, and the social and the political.
I am not suggesting that socialism can simply override all the distinctions of these spheres. The Soviet Union's efforts to abolish the distinction between politics and economics should serve as a general warning here. But we still will not be able to avoid fundamentally questioning and reordering the institutional divisions of our capitalist societies. One possibility, for example, would be to redefine them in such a way that, for example, matters that today are clearly assigned to economics become political or social issues. We could also try to soften certain institutional boundaries more in order to ensure that the various spheres correspond better with one another, that is, behave less antagonistically to one another. In any case, what a socialist society must overcome is capitalism's tendency toward zero-sum games, in which what was previously snatched from nature or social reproduction is added to production.
But it is even more important to set priorities differently within these areas. While in capitalist societies the demands of social and ecological reproduction are subordinated to those of commodity production geared to capital accumulation, socialism must turn the whole thing around: People's needs, the protection of nature, and democratic self-determination should come first in our societies, rather than efficiency and economic growth. That is, we must clearly bring to the fore those things that capital pushes into the background it denies.
Finally, a socialism fit for the 21st century must democratize the very processes that determine how institutional boundaries are defined and reshaped. From now on, the "meta-political" task of reorganizing the various social spheres and their relationship to one another must be made the subject of collective contestation: The democratic publics, the demoi, are to decide for themselves which matters are to be dealt with in which order in which political and social arenas. Although historically evolved territorial units such as "nation-states" may still have some justification and need not necessarily be abolished altogether, the point is to restructure them through functionally defined political units. These political units should operate at different levels, but above all they should be committed to the principle of the greatest possible participation. Fundamentally, however, a socialist reorganization of social relations must be based on the principle of non-dominance. It is necessary to say goodbye to the old forms of exploitation and domination that permeate the entire capitalist social system and to arm ourselves against all the relations of domination with which we may still be confronted in the future.
Moreover, a social reorganization must be guided as far as possible by the principle "What I consume, I must replace." In a socialist society, there should be no place for "free-riding," that is, for the use of resources without compensation, as well as for "primitive accumulation." Under socialism, it must be ensured that the conditions of production are organized in a sustainable manner, something that capitalism so criminally neglects. In other words, a socialist society would be obliged to replenish, regenerate, repair or replace all the resources it uses and consumes in production and reproduction. This applies to care labor and generative labor more narrowly, as well as to labor that produces use values and commodities. A socialist society has to replace the wealth it takes "from outside", from "peripheral" regions and populations, as well as from nature. It must also take care of the preservation and maintenance of all the political processes and public goods that we need in order to satisfy various needs with them. In other words, stop exploiting those areas that are currently relegated to the denied background of capitalist society. This is also an important prerequisite for counteracting the intergenerational injustices that accompany capitalist societies. Only by taking all this into account can a socialism for the 21st century overcome capitalist irrationality and its crisis-prone institutions.
This brings me to my second point, which is tangential to a classic socialist concern, that of social surplus value. Surplus value is the basis of all wealth that a society generates when it produces more than it immediately needs to reproduce itself at its current level and in its current form. In capitalist societies, as is well known, surplus value is considered the private property of the capitalist class. The latter can dispose of it at will. As a rule, surplus value is used with the aim of creating even more surplus value. This process repeats itself in a continuous way, it knows no limits, but, as we know, it has several problems: it is above all unjust and self-destructive.
Therefore, a socialist society must seek ways to democratically control and redistribute social surplus value. This requires collective decision-making that allows us to decide for ourselves what exactly the available surplus and resources should be used for, and how much surplus value a society should produce, or whether it should produce any surplus value at all in the future. In other words, socialism has the task of breaking with the growth imperative built into the capitalist system. This does not yet mean that we have to establish "de-growth" as a new counter-imperative. Much would be gained if we succeeded in making the question of growth (if growth, then how much growth, what kind of growth, in what areas and for what?) a political question. A socialism for the 21st century should aspire to make all the issues raised here issues of democratic contestation: What, how, and how much do we want to produce in the future? What part of the hours worked do we want to use for the production of surplus value? And beyond that: What do we actually need to reproduce and maintain our societies at the current level?
Organizing social surplus value differently would also have temporal advantages: What could we not do with all the time we have left in the future when the socially necessary work is done, the work needed to satisfy our basic needs as human beings? In all classical socialist conceptions of freedom, including those of Marx, freely available time is a central perspective. However, I doubt that we will have very much free time and leisure in the early stages of socialism because we will be faced with the many unpaid bills that capitalism will leave us with. Although capitalism prides itself on its high productivity, and even Marx recognized it as a decisive factor in increasing surplus value, I have my doubts here. The problem is that Marx only considered the surplus value that capital appropriates from the labor time that kicks in after wage earners have generated the value that covers their own cost of living. Marx paid little attention to the various "gifts" and "bargains" that capital appropriates without batting an eye, much less to the problem that capital generally refuses to pay for their costs of reproduction. What if all these costs were included in our overall assessment of capitalism? What if capital had to pay for all the unpaid care work, for all the ecological repair and regeneration that occurs, the public goods, if it had to repay racialized people for their expropriated wealth? What would then be left of the surplus value appropriated by capital in the end? This is, of course, a rhetorical question. I wouldn't even know where to begin to arrive at a satisfactory answer. But in one respect I have no doubt whatsoever: the open bill that threatens to come upon a socialist society after centuries of freeloading as the legacy of capitalism will be extremely hefty.
Part of this open bill are all the unmet human needs in this world: there is a lack of good health care everywhere, of sufficiently affordable housing, of equal access to healthy (and tasty) food, to education and mobility, and much more. All of these should not be understood as superfluous investments in human labor, but as an absolute necessity. The same applies to the urgent and no longer postponable task of making the world economy independent of its previous fossil bases. Fundamentally, the question of what is socially necessary and what is superfluous or surplus takes a completely different turn when the view of capitalism is broadened.
The same applies to the question of the role of markets in a socialist society. The answer that emerges from what I have said so far can be reduced to a simple formula: no markets at the top, no markets at the bottom, but possibly in the "spaces in between." Let me explain what I mean by this.
When I talk about the top, I am talking about the allocation of social surplus value. Assuming that there is social surplus value to be distributed, it must be considered as something collective, something generated by society as a whole. No private individual, no company, and no state should have the right to own it or to dispose of it alone. Collective decision-making and planning processes are needed to achieve a fair (re)distribution of collectively generated surplus value. These must be as democratic and transparent as possible. Market mechanisms must play no role in this. That means: At the top, there is no need for markets or private property.
The same applies to the "bottom," by which I mean the level of basic needs: housing, clothing, food, education, health and energy supplies, transportation and communication, leisure activities. I have no illusions that it would be possible to define once and for all what we mean by basic needs and what exactly is required to satisfy them. That, too, should be the subject of democratic debate, discussion and decision-making. But whatever and however is decided: Access to vital infrastructure and services should be regulated by law, not a matter of ability to pay. This means that the use values we produce to meet these needs should not be treated as commodities, but as public goods. For this reason, by the way, I am not a supporter of an (unconditional) basic income. The latter envisages paying people a certain amount of money every month so that they can buy things to meet their basic needs. In this way, however, the satisfaction of basic needs takes on a commodity form. In a socialist society, the goal should be to consider basic needs as public goods. So that means no markets at the lower end.
So, no markets at the bottom and at the top. But what about the in-between? I don't have a clear and definitive position on that question. I envision the in-between as a kind of laboratory where we can experiment with different options and approaches, a space where "market socialism" might find a place along with cooperatives, commons, and self-managed associations and projects. I suspect that in this context I have presented, many classic leftist objections to the raison d'être and purpose of markets would become unnecessary or at least weakened. For these interstitial spaces would not be dependent on or determined by mechanisms that serve solely the accumulation of capital or the private appropriation of social surplus value. Once socialization and decommodification have taken place at the top and bottom, I believe it will be possible to transform the function and role of markets in the middle. Although I cannot say at the moment exactly how this would be implemented, this seems to me the most plausible path.
I realize that the concept of socialism I have outlined here comes across as rather modest and remains rudimentary. What I have tried to do in this paper is to formulate initial vague answers for a very small subset of relevant questions. Nevertheless, I hope that this outreach has some value. In particular, I hope to have made a convincing case that such an endeavor is worth pursuing even in the 21st century. "Socialism" should be much more than a mere buzzword. In light of the fact that current capitalism is in the process of destroying our planet and our prospects for a free, democratic, and good life, "socialism" must become a genuine systemic alternative. I would also be glad to have made clear why an old-school understanding of socialism is no longer helpful today. Only with an expanded analysis of capitalism can an appropriate and modern understanding of socialism be developed that can meet all the needs and hopes of the 21st century.
This text first appeared in Socialist Register 2020, Vol. 56.
Nancy Fraser is a political scientist and one of the best-known US feminists. She is currently a professor of political and social science at the New School for Social Research in New York. Together with Andrew Arato, she is the editor of Constellations, an international journal of critical theory and democratic theory. From the perspective of Polanyi's historical analysis of the "Great Transformation," she looks at the current crisis and how to overcome it.